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On a completely unrelated matter, but one a lot more important than credit risk strategy in the grander scheme of things, it’s great to see Chinese celebrities raising awareness about the terrible and futile cost of the trade in rhino horn.

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Although not banking related, I have decided to re-publish this summary of my MBA thesis here.  The study looks at reasons why the long-term unemployed in South Africa tend to continue a seemingly hopeless search for formal employment rather than to starting their own micro-enterprises.  More recent studies have echoed some of the themes here.

1) Introduction

The South African economy is not short of idiosyncrasies. One of the more distressing of these is that it exhibits one of the world’s highest levels of unemployment coupled with one of its lowest levels of entrepreneurial behaviour. Despite a decade of impressive and sustained economic growth, the official unemployment rate still runs over 23% and there are few communities that don’t feel its effect.

Such high levels of unemployment are not just a symptom of economic distress but also a potential cause of it. Unemployed populations lose their potential for productivity when they miss opportunities for on-the-job skills development and as their skills become outmoded by technical advances.

One of the main “engines” of employment growth in an economy is entrepreneurship, especially entrepreneurship with high-growth potential. However, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report, South Africa has a very low-level of entrepreneurial behaviour compared to upper-middle income countries and it is even worse when compared to developing countries.

Such an equilibrium seems unsustainable. With no meaningful welfare system in place, one would expect high levels of unemployment to necessitate high levels of entrepreneurial behaviour, even if such behaviour was limited in impact by environmental and historical constraints. However, South Africa has a long history of high unemployment and ever since the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report was first published, in 2001, South Africa has returned below average performance.

This paper seeks to bring into a focus an important factor in the process of encouraging entrepreneurial activity among the previously unemployed – the motivation to act. In order to for an individual to act they must posses the opportunity, the ability and the motivation to do so. The first two of these requirements are commonly addressed. However, programmes designed to encourage entrepreneurship usually subscribe to the ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy. In other words, they start with the assumption that if they provide skills training, funding or another form of entrepreneurial assistance, entrepreneurs will seek them out to take advantage of those services.

Based on interviews with job seekers at a government sponsored labour centre in central Johannesburg, this paper shows that this is not always the case. It shows how the state of unemployment reduces an individual’s motivation to act entrepreneurially and how this can be reversed by borrowing from leading work-motivation theories to create more structured environments in which would-be entrepreneurs can reconstruct their motivation and build their businesses.

2) The Psychological Impacts of Unemployment

Unemployment can affect entrepreneurship in two ways – either by acting as an environmental “push” or by positively or negatively affecting the psychological make-up of the potential entrepreneur.

Despite several studies on the subject, the degree to which unemployment causes a “push” towards entrepreneurial behaviour in an economy is not clear. Gilad and Levine and then Carree found no such relationship. They suggested, by way of explanation, that an economy with high unemployment is also an economy with few business opportunities and so those positive forces that may existed are countered by the negative forces caused by the lack of a “pull”. Ritsila and Tervo did find some relationship between unemployment and entrepreneurship, but only at the level of the individual. There was little evidence of a relationship between regional or national unemployment and entrepreneurial behaviour.

The literature is in more agreement, however, when discussing the impact of unemployment on an individual’s psyche. Many studies have shown that a period of unemployment has negative effects on an individual’s psychological well-being which, in turn, can affect their unemployment experience, their job search behaviour and even their productivity in future jobs.

These negative impacts are intensified as the period of unemployed persists. Rodriguez (2002) found that the level of depression experienced by an unemployed individual was affected by the initial level of expectation they had about successfully finding work. This leads to a downward spiral in which each unsuccessful job search leaves an individual ever more demotivated.

This relationship is moderated by the degree to which an individual attributes their failure to external factors. Those showing the most depressive effect are also those most likely to attribute their failures to external factors. When an individual exerts effort and fails, it is difficult for them to attribute the failure to anything other than internal factors and so, in order to avoid overtly recognising themselves as the cause of their own failures, they put less effort into future tasks and attribute any subsequent failures to a lack of effort rather than to a lack of ability.

Unfortunately, the degree to which an individual attributes their own successes and failures to internal forces – rather than external forces – is a significant positive factor in the level of self-efficacy which, in turn, is fundamental to the motivation to become an entrepreneur.

A recently unemployed individual might initially have high expectations for finding a new job. However, as their job searches end unsuccessfully, these high expectations lead to higher levels of depression. As the individual experiences these heightened depressive effects they become more likely to attribute their unsuccessful job searches to external forces and, in so doing, further reduce their self-efficacy and their motivation to pursue entrepreneurship. So, an individual becomes less motivated to pursue entrepreneurship once they have become unemployed and that motivation continues to drop as they remain so.

3) Reversing the Psychological Impacts of Unemployment

Fortunately, motivation can be re-built. Or, to put it another way, where internal motivation is lacking it can be replaced by external motivation. The two most important theories explaining an individual’s motivation to pursue a task are goal-setting theory and self-determination theory. By understanding the implications of these two theories we can begin to understand how to rebuild motivation.

Goal-setting theory says that all consciously-motivated behaviour is goal-oriented and that the achievement of these goals is contingent upon feedback, commitment, ability and task complexity. However, in the context of this study, the most important insight provided by the theory is that goals set by an external agent can be as motivating as goals set autonomously by the individual – assuming they are communicated in the right way, come from a legitimate source and are internalised.

The achievement of goals is contingent upon four moderators – namely feedback, commitment, ability and task complexity. Ability and task complexity are situation-dependent and therefore, if we wish to improve the probability that a given task will be successfully achieved by a given individual, we should focus on the provision of feedback and the creation of commitment.

Feedback is an important moderator of goal performance. However, the early stages of entrepreneurship are often undertaken alone and so present few opportunities for an individual to receive feedback. To increase the opportunities for meaningful feedback, a more structured environment must be created. In such an environment, one nebulous goal is replaced by multiple smaller and more reachable goals – all of which are controlled by a respected and legitimate source.

Commitment leads to lower rates of voluntary deviance from a particular goal. In the context of entrepreneurship, commitment would encourage a potential entrepreneur to continue towards the goal of self-employment regardless of any set-backs they might encounter in the process. This is where self-determination theory comes into play. Although autonomy is a primary human need, intrinsically motivated goals are not the only goals that receive commitment. Extrinsically motivated goals can receive commitment provided the individual identifies with and internalises the goal.

Therefore, it should be possible for an external agent to conceive and set specific goals for an unemployed individual and for these goals to be as motivating as if they had been set internally. As these goals are achieved and positive feedback is received, the damage caused by long-term unemployment will begin to be reversed.

4) Findings

So there is a strong theoretical argument for a more structured approach to encouraging entrepreneurship among individuals with a history of unemployment. In order to see if this argument resonated in practice, I interviewed forty job-seekers at a government sponsored Labour Centre in central Johannesburg, South Africa.

Labour Centres have been provided to help unemployed South Africans find jobs and to provide basic skills-training when needed. They do not assist with entrepreneurial activities. There are government programmes that provide funding and other assistance to entrepreneurs and these are located at equally convenient locations in all major cities. A visitor to a Labour Centre is therefore, by definition, seeking paid employment although not necessarily exclusively so. This was true of those interviewed with all but one respondent exclusively seeking paid employment.

However, in contrast to their behaviour, two-thirds of the respondents said that they would rather be self-employed than employed (and rather be either than unemployed).

So, notwithstanding the existence of many and varied programmes designed to encourage grassroots entrepreneurship, there exists a significant group of individuals who value the ideal of self-employment but who, even after an average of two years of failed job-seeking attempts, choose to exclusively pursue employment. This group was the focus this study.

When there is a disconnect between the desire to act and the actions taken, an external or internal impediment must exist.

The literature suggests that an individual will choose to avoid pursuing those goals for which they feel incompetent. Therefore, the disconnect between the stated desires and the actions of the would-be entrepreneurs would be easily explained if they felt incompetent or unqualified to pursue entrepreneurship. This is discredited by the results of the survey. Seventy-seven percent of those with a preference for employment considered self-employment a more difficult pursuit than regular employment. However, in the group with entrepreneurial desires, only thirty percent of respondents felt the same. And even then, in that thirty percent, a full sixty percent still felt capable of running their own businesses.

It would also have been understandable for such a disconnect to arise had the group lacked access to capital. Again, however, this was not an important factor. Not only are such facilities readily available – including, but not limited to, the Umsobomvu Fund – but only three respondents were seeking employment to build-up their own capital reserves, only one had actively sought funding and the need for capital was mentioned by only half of the would-be entrepreneurs.

Therefore, with no significant external impediments the missing factor, the one causing the disconnect between desires and actions, must be internal. The literature suggests that it is a lack of motivation caused by a history of unemployment. This was corroborated by my findings where three-quarters of the respondents said they felt worse about themselves immediately after a failed job search and all – at least all of those who had at a previous stage been employed – are less confident now that they are unemployed than they had been during a previous period of employment. Other aspects of self efficacy were also dented and half of the would-be entrepreneurs felt less capable of performing a work-related task after a failed job search.

The findings clearly show that the respondents are exhibiting the expected negative psychological effects of unemployment. Work motivation theories – and in particular goal-setting theory and self-determination theory – suggest that these effects could be reversed in a structured environment.

This too was borne out in the responses where eighty-two percent of the would-be entrepreneurs said they preferred structured work environments to unstructured ones; fifty-seven percent preferred following instructions to giving them and sixty-five percent preferred to attempt multiple small tasks in a given period rather than attempting a single large one. In fact, for each of these questions the group of would-be entrepreneurs showed a slightly stronger preference for structure than those favouring regular employment.

5) Conclusion

Unemployment is clearly a problem for South Africa, one that undermines the economic and socioeconomic stability of the country. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, creates jobs and reduces unemployment. However, the natural levels of entrepreneurial behaviour in South Africa are insufficient to make a significantly positive impact. So the need for programmes to encourage entrepreneurial behaviour is quite clear.

Many good programmes already encourage and enable entrepreneurship at all levels of the South African economy. This research does not seek to discredit those programmes. Rather, it seeks to add further insight into the way in which the dynamics of entrepreneurship are changed by prolonged periods of unemployment.

A significant group exists among the unemployed that sees self-employment as a desirable goal.  This group acknowledges the difficulties associated with entrepreneurship but feels capable of succeeding nonetheless. However, after a prolonged period of unemployment, this group has limited motivation to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in the short-term.

The literature predicts that a more structured environment – rich with opportunities for feedback and small, achievable goals – will facilitate the rebuilding of that motivation.  Fortunately – and perhaps contrary to our stereotypes of entrepreneurs – this group craves structure.

Therefore, programmes that aim to encourage entrepreneurship in communities suffering from high and prolonged levels of unemployment should be constructed differently to those that aim to encourage entrepreneurship at the developed end of the economy. These programmes can not simply facilitate the process of starting a business and assume that would-be entrepreneurs will proactively seek them out. Alongside funding and skills training, they must provide a very structured environment – akin to the structure offered by unskilled employment – where would-be grass-roots entrepreneurs can rebuild their damaged motivation.

In time – as the negative psychological impacts of unemployment are countered by the positive psychological impacts of external motivation, feedback and goal achievement – this structured environment will become less important for the entrepreneur. At a point, a previously unemployed entrepreneur will have developed the internal motivation that would have existed naturally but for the long period of unemployment. At this point, they can be transitioned to a traditional programme designed to assist more sophisticated entrepreneurs.

Providing the requisite degree of structure without stifling innovation is a delicate balance and such a programme would need to be carefully constructed. The role of an extrinsic motivator is temporary and only effective when held by legitimate source of authority; extrinsically motivated goals and feedback only motivating when they are well communicated. Although much work remains before this subject is fully understood, a fully inclusive programme that addresses the motivation to act entrepreneurially will be a major step forwards.


The full version of this thesis can be read here



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